A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is often taken as a death sentence, but January of 2001, I was introduced to living proof it need not be.
At the Mexico City clinic of the late world-renowned cardiologist, Dr. Demetrio Sodi-Pallares (who preferred to be called “Dr. Sodi”), I met Constanza Gracias.
Constanza had been Dr. Sodi's patient for eleven years. It had been twelve years since she had been told she had pancreatic cancer of stage T3 (tumor spread to stomach, spleen, colon, and adjacent blood vessels). The doctors at the social security hospital in Mexico City had told her that her case was hopeless, but she was determined to live. She consulted Dr. Sodi at his free clinic.
For most of his 67 years as a physician, Demetrio Sodi-Pallares, who lived from 1913 to 2003, had been a leader in mainstream medicine. One of the first cardiologists to master the use of electrocardiography (EKG), he had been a professor of medicine at UCLA, the University of Michigan, and Baylor. He authored 13 books and over 300 papers. He pioneered a method of treating heart attacks that, after 52 years of objections by the American Heart Association, finally became an accepted method even in the USA (after it had been used to save tens of thousands of lives in other countries). In fact, it was his success in the simple treatment of heart attacks that led to his interest in cancer.
At Baylor Medical School in Houston, Dr. Sodi practiced in the same clinic as the famed Dr. Michael DeBakey. In the 1960's, Sodi perfected a way to treat heart attacks with a method a little like chelation therapy for about $25. In the same decade, DeBakey perfected a way to treat heart attacks with bypass surgery for about $25,000. There was little doubt which eminent cardiologist would bring the most revenues to the medical school. There also was little doubt which eminent cardiologist would be invited to retire. When Dr. Sodi reached the age of 65, he was encouraged to retire to his native Mexico City.
Back in Mexico, Sodi resolved he would devote the rest of his life to treating "hopeless" cases without charge. Over his wife's considerable objections, he built a clinic over his swimming pool, just a few steps from his living room. Since he had already spent 42 years practicing cardiology, Sodi opened his doors to heart patients and used his technique successfully when others had failed. No patient was ever charged, and the doctor spent many hours with each of them.
One patient, however, presented both a heart attack and lung cancer. Not knowing how to treat the lung cancer without radiation or chemotherapy, Dr. Sodi applied his standard treatment and his standard dietary orders: No added salt, no processed foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, and up to one egg and 5 ounces (140 grams) of meat a day--but absolutely no added salt!
The patient recovered normal heart function. Previously unable to walk across a room, he resumed playing tennis. Even more amazingly, this man he went into remission from cancer. Dr. Sodi soon realized that simply lowering sodium and raising potassium in the diet could give the body's natural defenses exactly the boost it needed to beat cancer.
But before Constanza Gracia, he had never had a patient come in with one of most deadly forms of cancer, a pancreatic adenocarcinoma.
On her first visit, Constanza was too weak to sit on the edge of Dr. Sodi’s examination table. She became unbearably fatigued just from being moved into position for x-rays. Her veins had been punctured too many times for her to receive the intravenous drip of the glucose, insulin, and potassium the doctor gave his heart patients.
Constanza could, however, still take nourishment by mouth, so Dr. Sodi decided the low-salt diet was her only hope. Sodi prescribed the same strict low-salt, high-potassium diet he recommended for his heart patients. He got out a thimble and told Constanza to use it as a measure for all the salt she could consume in a day. There were to be no processed foods of any kind, no baked goods made with salt, nothing with sodium-laden preservatives, no canned meats or cured meats, no pickles, not even raw vegetables that are particularly high in sodium such as beets, carrots, and celery.
On the other hand, Constanza was ordered eat at least nine servings of low-sodium vegetables and fruit every day. She could also consume up to 150 g (about 5 oz) of meat, an egg, and two tablespoons of vegetable oil or unsalted butter in any given day. She also could drink two glasses of milk or eat yogurt, but cheese was forbidden. Constanza was to come back in two weeks.
This was the first time the doctor had sent a "terminal" patient off on her own to treat herself with diet. He was hoping for the best, but he could not imagine survival, much less recovery, without medical intervention. That is why everyone in the clinic, especially Dr. Sodi, was joyfully astonished when Constanza came back two weeks later, greatly improved.
Dr. Sodi never prescribed any intervention in this case of pancreatic cancer other than strict diet. Over the next year, Constanza continued to recover. Notably, her physical symptoms improved faster than the lingering depression she suffered after first learning her diagnosis. Although Constanza was a brave and determined patient, her recovery was not an obvious case of mind over matter.
After twenty-one months, Constanza’s x-rays and CT scans showed no sign of cancer--so much that her original oncologist offered the opinion that her original diagnosis had to have been a mistake. But it was not. Dr. Sodi’s own x-rays had shown a definite mass. It appeared the diet had cured pancreatic cancer.
When I met Constanza in 2001, I asked this exceptional cancer survivor how she stayed on a strict low-sodium diet for eleven years. She smiled, and said, "I don't have any problem staying on my diet. The slightest taste of salt to me is like electricity. Constanza had become so “charged” by the diet that her taste for salt completely changed. And she remains in good health decades after her diagnosis with terminal cancer of one of the most deadly sorts.
Dr. Sodi said that the common conception of cancer is that it is a mass of aggressive cells invading healthy tissues. It is possible to base an effective nutritional program for treating cancer, he said, on a very different view. The doctor believed that an appropriate metaphor for cancer cells is that they are too tired to cling to their proper place in tissues.
Every time a cell, cancerous or healthy, takes in a molecule of sugar for fuel it has to expel two potassium ions and accept three sodium ions. All these ions are positively charged. If the cell cannot pump the excess sodium out through a specialized molecular channel, conventional science confirms, the cell loses more and more of the negative charge across its outer membrane. As the cellular battery runs down, it is less and less able to pull in amino acids and respond to regulators, and the cell is more likely to become cancerous. Or, as I would describe the situation, it becomes too "tired" to continue as a normal cell.
Even Dr. Sodi believed in conventional medicine. What he learned in 25 years of treating "hopeless" cancer patients for free was that changes in sodium-potassium balance can give your body and your medications a chance to cure cancer. He found in dozens of cases that lowering sodium and raising potassium is the boost natural defenses, with or without chemotherapy, need to succeed.
The people Dr. Sodi helped sometimes indulged in foods like fried chicken and ice cream and spaghetti and meatballs, as long as they were prepared without salt. They could share meals with their families, as long as they avoided salt. They were not consigned to a perpetual diet of sprouts or brown rice or tofu. They did not need to chop twenty pounds of vegetables a day to make juice. Dr. Sodi's anti-cancer diet took the principles of other successful anti-cancer diets, but found their healthy limits.
And what were the limits to Dr. Sodi's diet?
Demetrio Sodi-Pallares observed that the responsiveness of cancer to diet depended on the action potential of the membrane of the cell. What is an action potential? Every cell in the human body is surrounded by a thin membrane. Various ions, which are small, charged atoms or molecules, move across the membrane through channels.
These channels are molecular pathways that are just the right size to allow them to pass through. Channels are gated open or shut by various levels of electrostatic charge to keep specific kinds of ions in or out or to change their concentration in the cell.
Specific permeability allows a concentration gradient to be established across the cellular membrane. Since ions carry an electrical charge, an electrical gradient is established across the cell membrane. This is in effect transforms each cell into a tiny battery. This imbalance in electrical charge caused by differing concentrations of ions on opposite sides of the cell membrane creates the membrane potential.
Every cell in the body is slightly more negative inside than outside. That is, every cell has a negative resting potential. In some tissues, such as the pancreas and the bone, the resting potential is extremely low, about -4mV (4 thousandths of a volt). Cells in tissue that are extremely active have stronger electrostatic potential. The electrostatic potential of a healthy heart cell, also known as a myocyte, is about -90 mV (90 thousandths of a volt).
That is why bone and pancreatic cancers are quickly responsive to low-sodium, high-potassium diets and cancers of the heart and muscles are only slowly responsive to changes in diet.
Dr. Sodi's pancreatic cancer diet is just one of the nutritional approaches to pancreatic cancer that get surprising results. He focused on sodium. He would say you can eat meat on a cancer-fighting diet. Others would say that a macrobiotic, meat-free approach to fighting cancer works best for them.